Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Silence and Music

Nature in Downland

WH Hudson, 1900: page 122

…That music comes to us naturally, that it is an instinct, nobody will deny; it is only music as an art and an end in itself, cultivated in the highest degree for its own sake alone, and taken out of its relation with life, that I am compelled to regard as a mere by-product of the mind, a beautiful excrescence, which is of no importance to the race, and without which most of us are just as rich and happy in our lives.

This question does not concern us. Music in another wider sense is, like beauty, everywhere – the elemental music if winds and of waters, of

The lisp of leaves and the ripple of rain,

And the music of bird voices. For just as the bird, as Ruskin says, is the cloud concentrated, its aerial form perfected and vivified with life; so, too, in the songs and calls and cries of the winged people do we listen to the diffused elemental music of nature concentrated and changed to clear penetrative sound. Listen to the concealed reed-warbler, quietly singing all day long to himself among the reeds and rushes: it is a series of liquid sounds, the gurgling and chiming of lapping water on the shallow pebbled bed of a stream. The beautiful inflected cry of the playing pewit is a mysterious lonely sound, as of some wild half-human being blowing in a hollow reed he had made. Listen again to a band of small shore birds – stints, dotterels, knots, and dunlins – conversing together as they run about on the level sands, or dropping bright twittering notes as they fly swiftly past: it is like the vibrating crystal chiming sounds of a handful of pebbles thrown upon and bounding and glissading musically over a wide sheet of ice.

From these small sounds and the smaller still of insect life, to the greater sounds of bird and mammal - the noise of the herring and black-backed gulls drifting leisurely by at a vast height above the earth, and ever and anon bursting out in a great chorus of laugh-like cries, as if the clouds had laughed; the innumerable tremulous bleatings of a driven flock; the percussive bark of the shepherd’s dog, and the lowing of kine in some far-off valley. They are all musical, are in a sense music. And, best of all, there is the human voice. Even a musical artist, in spite of an artist’s prejudice, an old English composer, has said that speech, the sweet music of it, is infinitely more to us than song and the sound of all our musical instruments… The people of the downs have in my experience the nicest voices in speaking. And here as in other places you will occasionally find a voice of the purest, most beautiful quality. I would go more miles to hear a voice of that description speaking simple words, than I would go yards to listen to the most wonderful vocal flights of the greatest diva on earth. Not that the mere pleasure to the sense would not be vastly greater in the latter case; but in the other the voice, though but of a peasant saying some simple thing, would also say something to the mind, and would live and re-live in the mind, to be heard again and often, even after years; and with other similar voices it would serve to nourish and keep alive a dream.

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